"Our fight has been worth it!" - Valuing women’s work in the face of Covid19

March 8 is International Women’s Day, but what about their rights in these special times of health crises around the world? WSM met women activists from three continents.

Ingrid Mulamba is a professor and researcher at the Chair of Social Dynamics at the University of Kinshasa in the Congo and advisor to a large number of feminist organisations. Alexandra Arguedas is a social worker, active at WSM Costa Rica and Lut Cromphout is a nurse at the Jan Portaels Hospital in Vilvorde and a member of the Belgium mobile team.

Has the health crisis had a major impact on those around you?

Ingrid: Of course. The Congolese government imposes strong restrictive measures but does not establish any support measures or substitute income. This is why so many people fall into poverty!

Alexandra: The tourism sector, the main source of employment in Costa Rica, has completely collapsed. It is a tragedy for many families.

Lut: Of course the health crisis has a great impact on work at the hospital. At first we felt very supported, but a year later the economy seems to take priority over healthcare again.

Is the impact different for men and women? Are there specific groups of women who are more affected than others?
Lut: Yes, it has to do with persistent gender stereotypes. Even today, mothers are still the main caregivers of children. Combining more flexibility in the hospital with children at home is not an easy task.

Alexandra: Women are suffering a lot from the pandemic. The "lucky ones" can work at home, but then have to take over most of the household chores. Women are the majority in the sectors most affected: domestic work, commerce and tourism. Many have been fired or their contracts have been temporarily suspended. And those who work in the informal sector see their income drastically decrease, or even disappear.

Mutual solidarity is an important support for informal workers, can you clarify what it is?
Ingrid: The "malewists" are an example. They are women who operate the popular and informal canteens in Kinshasa. These women do not have access to official social protection. So each one contributes some kind of savings to support each other in times of need. This is very useful now, because due to containment measures, many "malewists" are deprived of income.

Alexandra: The organisation "Women for Costa Rica" has formulated concrete proposals to support women in precarious situations. One of them advocates, in particular, for the integration of domestic staff work in social economy projects financed by public authorities.

What role did the union play?
Lut: In the works council, we started a dialogue with the employer to establish a structure and a maximum of regularity. We were also able to conclude a historic social agreement! Provides both a salary increase and additional hires. It still doesn’t solve all the problems, but it is a big step in the right direction.

Alexandra: In Costa Rica, the union movement is mainly active in the public sector. We have really come a long way in affiliate mobilization. There are also more women in union decision-making bodies. Consequently, we are also more attentive to the situation of women workers and their specific rights. Unfortunately, the people most affected by the crisis are not affiliated. Very often they are women, migrants, because they are overrepresented in the most precarious informal professions.

If you could decide, what would be the first step you would take to promote gender equality?
Lut: I would certainly advocate for a general reduction in working time. Why not the 30 hour week? Today, many of my colleagues spend all their time credits and then switch to part-time work to combine their work with housework. A general reduction in working time, for both men and women, could offer a solution.

Ingrid: Would adopt a measure of positive discrimination: free higher and university education for women and girls. In addition, I encourage NGOs and associations to organize trainings so that women understand that they are capable of performing the same functions as men and dare to apply for these positions.

Alexandra: I would integrate the gender perspective in prevention, recovery and social and economic protection measures.

Do you have a wish or message for the future for all those leading the fight for gender equality in these difficult times?

Ingrid: I encourage everyone not to give up, even though equality is often theoretical. We need to encourage, support and advise other women. It all starts with mutual support.

Lut: Follow your heart and know that you are not alone. Look at the positive results of action: change is possible, even if it sometimes takes several generations.

Alexandra: During this crisis, we have seen our rights diminish. We are all in the same boat, but each of us travels in different classes. We must fight together always and everywhere. Solidarity and empathy between us is fundamental, so that one day we can say together: our fight has been worth it!